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  1. #1

    Fantasy informed by real world occult

    I've posted a similar thread to this before, but that was a more broad thread. One thing that has bothered me about fantasy is that despite looking to real world mythologies and cultures for inspiration, much of it lacks a sense of being informed by the related occult teachings, instead choosing a "just because" approach to magic.It has no flavor to it truly in this sense.It's just Deus ex Machina that happens to appear often in a story. It also doesn't explain certain conundrums such as "if this magic is so widespread then why do we have this problem". Which the occult gives us an explanation for. While mastery does give you astounding power, it's not as simple as snapping your fingers, it has rules, and it requires a great deal of skill and study of rather expansive spiritual concepts, and overuse or incorrect use can be dangerous. Of course I can understand how one might be afraid to turn half the story into a discourse on esoteric religion and such things, but it would really help.I was honestly wondering if there is any non-urban/contemporary fantasy that has been clearly informed by real world occult traditions? I'm not saying that people should totally rip them off, or tell me of any total rip offs, but are there are any informed by these traditions at the very least?

  2. #2
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    I'm utterly confused by the OP.......

    What are the real world traditions you speak of ?

  3. #3
    I'm confused as to why you're confused.How one could not know what traditions I speak of confuses me more.Christian theurgy, Druidry, Hindu mystical practices, Wicca, general western ceremonial methods, etc.

    What I call the problem of magic is similar to the problem of evil. If the problem of evil is "If there is a just all powerful God why do we suffer?" which I have my own opinions on, the problem of magic is "If we have these great mystical powers with which we can do so much why do we still have all these problems?" That is part of what I'm addressing, and I'm suggesting basing it on traditions of mystical belief in our world this problem is explained by the complex nature of occult belief and laws of magic. The problem of magic as I call it, has been an annoyance for some others who I know.

    It also just irritates me that people will be inspired by all manner of mythology and ancient religion and yet when it comes down to it, they are hardly able to apply the related spiritual principles to the world they're writing about,and seemingly just use them as imagery without understanding the meaning behind any of it. Some people might be displeased with the idea of having a treatise on esoteric spiritual thought worked into the story, but saying nothing hardly does the source material's complex nature justice.

  4. #4
    Magic is subtle, personal, and for these reasons, probably not particularly interesting if realistically portrayed in fiction.

    People read fantastic literature to escape, to tackle strange ideas, to feel heroic, to be entertained. Folks aren't likely to find what they are looking for if an author writes occult fiction based on historical traditions - not if the writer is accurate anyways.

    You would probably be better off reading spiritual journey novels like 'My Life with the Spirits', 'It's Here Now... Are You', 'William S. Burroughs vs. the Quran', 'the Zelator', 'Aghora', etc.

    You could check out the stories in 'Bright From the Well'. 'Erbeth Transmission' is science fiction based on the Temple of Set. The Icelandic Sagas and Edda both are the foundations of epic fantasy but also connected to reconstructed heathenry.

    The Voudon Gnostic Workbook is a magical text, but strange and interesting in its own right.

    Comic Books by magicians:
    Promethea by Alan Moore
    Invisibles by Grant Morrison

  5. #5
    I have a small personal library about these traditions.Some are works by members of small, largely unknown "orders". Others are classics of occult discourse.I have read most ancient legends about which a great deal is known. So these things are not what I seek.I know where to find them whenever I should desire to seek them.

    I also have have no problem suspending disbelief whenever a character tosses a fireball.It's the "just because" nature of the authors answers about how it is done that bothers me. I find it more boring in that sense. I generally find "just because" as an answer unsatisfying in any inquiry. Eventually their comes a point where all inquiries lead to that, but the longer it takes to reach that point, the more satisfied I am. One does not need to dedicate half the book to describing all mechanics down to the tiniest detail,just enough to confirm it and some basic philosophy.The religions of described cultures will fill in the rest.I also find that the character having to go through certain meditative exercises, or ritual actions and invocations adds a sense of peril no matter how God-like a mage might be. Now while I ultimately have come to have a certain distaste for characters who are half-spirit being (half-demon, part-dragon if you really look at the old legends, half-elf if you look at Norse mythology, half-fae) a character who is some how more like them than the average human can make a just because explanation more possible since it's a greater part of them. The way I see it, the occult is to religion what quantum physics is to science, and sufficiently advanced understanding of physics can result in fantastic things. So I view magic as the sort of quantum physics of fantasy.

  6. #6
    Registered User Seli's Avatar
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    Steven Erikson has some of this approach to magic in his series, but it is a tiny portion compared to other types so probably not your cup of tea. Moorcock perhaps, although he uses this system written large.

    Perhaps works focussing on alchemy, but I cannot think of any examples right now.

    The problem is that the systems you are looking at were basically stacks and layers of smokescreens, and not many authors like to focus on those. I think I mostly have seen them as the folk/poor people magic in the background of books where progress has marched on.

    Perhaps it is worth it looking through tvtropes, they might have a category that approximately fits your wishes.

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    Registered User Vinegar Tom's Avatar
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    Speaking as somebody who, until financial reverses deprived me of absolutely all of my material possessions (surprisingly painless, once you get over the fact that it's actually happened), had a large library of rare occult books, I know how magic works a lot better than your average poster.

    In a nutshell, it doesn't. Human beings have an instinctive desire to understand how the world works, Unfortunately, developing a scientific method that truly describes reality is very, very difficult indeed. Therefore primitive humans have an instinct to take short-cuts. Magic is a totally illusory means to kid yourself that you control reality in ways you haven't figured out yet, and it's popular because if your culture is such that doing this for real is utterly beyond you, believing in absolute nonsense is better than banging your head against a wall that will one day be broken by a genius who unfortunately isn't you.

    Looking at these matters from a fantasy fiction perspective, obviously magic works as well as you say it does. In which context it's interesting that Seli mentioned Michael Moorcock. He came up with the idea - which I think is absolutely correct - that the one inescapable difference between good and bad fantasy is internal consistency. So the magic in your made-up universe can do whatever you say it does, but at the same time, it's as rigidly constrained by the laws that you invented for it as real-world physics is.

    Tim Powers has an interesting take on this. His basic idea is that, for reasons utterly beyond the control of humans, magic used to work a lot better than it does now, because almost all of it has drained out of our current Universe, therefore stories of miracles written a long time ago are true, but you can't do the same thing now. Thus, as magic became less and less reliable, humans were forced to come up with science, so that they could make reality do what they wanted it to, as opposed to simply asking it and hoping it was in a good mood.

    This is of course the crucial difference between magic and science, especially in a fantasy setting. Electricity is tremendously useful, even though it can potentially kill you, because unless certain utterly predictable mistakes are made, you're perfectly safe. Unfortunately it consumes finite real-world resources. Magic that does the same thing without consuming any non-renewable power-source that we know about? Obviously it's better. Until you consider the fact that your power-source is sentient, and it may kill you because you forgot to pray before you turned on the light.

    To give you a very blunt example, consider The Lesser Key Of Solomon. Out of the 72 demons discussed therein, there's one (I forget which, but since none of them exist, it doesn't really matter) who will provide you with hot bath-water whenever you want it. Now, oddly enough, I can do this! I didn't sell my soul to Lucifer, summon a creature with the power of a thermonuclear weapon to my immediate vicinity and dicker with it, or anything like that. I simply paid my electricity bill and turned on the tap. You can see why science is better than demonology. But in a chaotic infrastructure where nothing works unless you ask a demon nicely and hope it agrees with you...?

  8. #8
    Careful what you say, you may offend someone else's religious beliefs. If anything physics and other sciences have only further served to strengthen my belief in the supernatural. They operate around the idea that there are natural laws that govern this universe, though they discourse on different matters. To me the idea of finite magic makes no sense since it's essentially energy.Energy cannot be created or destroyed only converted.Furthermore the key of Solomon was written in a time when it was a much more taxing feat to set up a hot bath for one's self.Furthermore, these are devils, they enjoy causing people harm and making underhanded dubious deals.It is ultimately better for you to turn on the faucet though.Electricity was effectively useless to humans for thousands of years before they learned to harness it, so who's to say we don't have a similar problem with the mystical? Furthermore, and I say this if only to be a devil's advocate, what if science is a minor form of sorcery? The study of the spiritual art of alchemy was a catalyst in the development of chemistry was it not? I could argue metaphysics all night if I so desired but that would derail this thread further than this paragraph might.To me to completely deny the existence of one with the absolute favor of the other is foolish and arrogant.

    Also I am not familiar with Moorecock's statement about consistency despite having a bit of a fondness for The Elric Saga. However, consistency where it matters is something I look for and strive for. Discontinuity and true contradiction are things I look upon with the greatest distaste in all form of fiction.

    The problem with finite magic that I have is that it's energy driven and one can neither create or destroy energy, let alone the fabric of the universe, energy can however, be converted and manipulated. If you ask me, that scientific principle is self evident in the world around us, physical and spiritual.There are some laws of the universe, spiritual and scientific, I see as so cardinal to the logical function of the universe that I will not even consider writing them out of a work of fiction.While I think that something mystical could defy certain defy certain laws of physics, it's very nature in fictional worlds and otherwise lends itself to be bound by some of the very same driving laws regardless of their source. At least from the mortal end of the looking glass.

    The other problem is that of the idea of knowing. We can know many things and use knowledge to our own ends, but the nature of the universe, especially if one brings the supernatural into the equation, that not all things can be known, and that mystery is one of the few certainties of the universe in both physical and metaphysical spheres. As I said, at some point, either because you do not have sufficient knowledge or you have reached a certain pinnacle, one must simply submit to the idea that it just is at least until new knowledge comes to light. However this does not mean there is no further reason.It may also be a problem of not understanding the reasons already discovered/presented to you for whatever reason that may be. Whether that is because of certain circumstances surrounding the discoveries, the lack of certain other pieces of knowledge, or any number of other complications depends entirely on the inquiring person and the circumstances under which the inquiry took place. I find the power of the situation is often underrated in many spheres of human thought and existence

    Though is an interesting point in discussing the use of a sapient of source of power. How reliable is it? What if it changes it's mind? What if you do something to upset it?
    Last edited by Riothamus; October 12th, 2012 at 06:32 PM.

  9. #9
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    Folks, this is a forum for discussing works of fantasy fiction. Please try and adhere, or this thread is moving out to General Discussion.

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Eventine View Post
    Folks, this is a forum for discussing works of fantasy fiction. Please try and adhere, or this thread is moving out to General Discussion.
    Which is what I had hoped it would say it until some people decided to expand it and insult the spiritual convictions of millions.

    Anyway, I would like it to return to the subject of books even if some people so desire to take it into other forms of discussion.

  11. #11
    Registered User Vinegar Tom's Avatar
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    My apologies if I've inadvertently had a go at somebody's religious beliefs by suggesting that a medieval grimoire doesn't actually summon real demons because they don't exist. Though I will say that I can't be blamed too much for this mistake, since I was under the impression that we were discussing fantasy fiction, not reality, whereas a certain other person seems to have a totally different agenda.

    Leaving aside real demons that actually exist (if they do - I personally think they don't, though if other people choose to disagree with me, hey, whatever floats your boat!), H. P. Lovecraft made the very astute observation, in response to persistent rumors that the Necronomicon was a real book, that if this book had been in existence for hundreds of years, and it contained instructions which, if followed correctly, would wipe out the human race, some idiot would have done it by now, so we wouldn't be having this discussion. That's why magic in any fantasy setting has to be limited in a realistic way. If magicians can literally accomplish anything at all by asking the Universe nicely, they can't be beaten and there's no story.

    A point which is surprisingly seldom commented on is that there's very little magic in The Lord Of The Rings. Gandalf isn't all that powerful, and at times he seems to be almost inept. Tolkein doesn't spell out the rules governing Gandalf's use of magic (though he may have done in one of those other books which you have to be a true fanatic to read), but I got the distinct impression that Gandalf could only pull off major magical feats if his life was in extreme danger, implying that magic doesn't work unless you have tremendously strong motivation, or it's so dangerous that you don't use it unless you absolutely have to, or both. Also, his most dramatic use of magic - defeating a balrog while plummeting to certain death - irreversibly transforms him into something more powerful but less human.

    Returning to The Lesser Key Of Solomon, which I personally consider to be a work of fiction, if you follow the rather complicated instructions perfectly, you can, amongst many other things, destroy major cities instantly. So basically this book is a free atom bomb. Which has never, ever been used by anyone because it doesn't really work. But suppose it did? What would the likes of Al-Qaeda do with a book that grants infinite destructive power to anyone who truly wants it? Of course, this doesn't apply in any way to the real world - if a book had existed in the middle ages which could unleash the equivalent of thermonuclear destruction, the Crusades would have been over very quickly indeed! And if both sides had copies of the book, World War 0 would have happened round about 1100 AD.

    That's the insidious thing about magic - it's power that comes to you for no reason other than that you really, really wanted it to. And it chose you for reasons of its own. In a society where magic works better than science, most people would rely on technology no more complex than a windmill, because allowing electricity into your home would be about as sensible as having a pet tiger. And witchfinders would be extremely necessary members of society for reasons which I'm sure you can guess.

  12. #12
    It never entered my mind algernoninc's Avatar
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    Great post Vinegar. I prefer magic systems where the supernatural is wild and hard to control, where practitioners of the occult pay a heavy price for dabbling in the forbidden arts as opposed to the mechanical, scientific approach found in RPG rules or Sanderson's books. I remember one of J V Jones books, I think it was Book of Words, where some evil guy has his body permanently deformed, or more recent in Ben Aaronovitch London series - your face might fall off or your brain turn into a cauliflower if you are untrained or unsufficiently focused. Reading a spell memorized from a book or drawing a rune with your fingers in the air are hardly credible feats for me, although I believe both methods are described in the occult books mentioned by the original poster. Going back to Ben Aaronovich, I think I prefer an approach where magical ability is some kind of sixth sense that is atrophied, subconscious, needs heavy training, and is ultimately still unpredictable.

  13. #13
    it could be worse Moderator N. E. White's Avatar
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    I was going to mention Aaronovitch's Peter Grant series, too. But I didn't think it matched the OPs requirements, but now that I think of it, maybe it does. His books devise an elaborate (hidden) use of magic and the establishment of its practice by Sir Issac Newton, no less (right? it was Newton, wasn't it?). Complete with an entire library. You might want to read that series. Even if it doesn't fit your bill, they are fun reads.

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    Quote Originally Posted by tmso View Post
    it was Newton, wasn't it?
    Yep. I'm reading Whispers Under Ground right now and wishing one of these books came out every month.

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    Registered User Vinegar Tom's Avatar
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    It's interesting that Sir Isaac Newton has been mentioned in this context. Speaking as someone whose family includes a ridiculous number of people with fantastic mathematical skills, I am familiar with Newton. My own IQ is very high indeed - sufficiently high that I understand that Newton had a mind that makes me look like plankton. Seriously, I'm sufficiently bright to understand how very, very smart he was, once his ideas have been explained to me very carefully indeed. If your IQ is roughly the same as mine, it will take you several months of sustained effort - once you understand the basic rules, which isn't easy - to grasp that this man really was smarter than you can possibly imagine. I am statistically one of the most intelligent people alive today, but what that guy came up with all by himself literally makes my brain hurt. I have an IQ somewhere in excess of 160, but if I was forced to be Sir Isaac Newton for 10 seconds, my head would explode. I'm just sufficiently smart enough to understand that!

    On similar lines, it has been seriously suggested that a mathematical equation exists which measures the absolute upper limit of human intelligence based on the organic brain we're currently stuck with. If your IQ is so high that you can almost but not quite solve this problem, your mind will implode and you'll become suicidally mad. It revolves around an obscure form of mathematics called Transfinity where all the numbers are infinite, but some are more infinite than others. Any reasonably intelligent person can understand this up to a certain level. And the only two people smart enough to take it to the next level, after years of cutting-edge abstract thought, both went raving mad in precisely the same way... It should be mentioned that the most mind-bending question known to science must have an answer which is either yes or no - but the mere knowledge that you are a monkey clever enough to understand the question, but too stupid to know the answer, will kill you. The question is called the Continuum Hypothesis - good luck!

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